Democrats skew younger than the Republicans. How are they still losing the Meme Wars?

Debating the party’s “Rule 34” without knowing that phrase’s subtext shows the Democrats are still leagues behind their opposition in understanding internet subculture.

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A lot of people on the internet got a good giggle on Tuesday when the Democrats announced they were debating “Rule 34”, a change to internal rules affecting how the party will elect a new Speaker now that last week’s midterm elections have given them control of the House of Representatives.

For those who don’t know why this was funny, Rule 34 is an ancient piece of internet meme-lore that states: “if it exists, there is porn of it, no exceptions”.

It is a foundational piece of internet subculture, and it is baffling – and troubling – that nobody in the Democratic party even seemed to know to suggest to anyone that this rule might have viral connotations.

This is more important than it sounds. 4chan and other parts of the internet’s dark underbelly are incredibly influential in molding the culture of the web. People there talk of the “meme wars” – a subterranean synecdoche of the culture wars that have overtaken public discourse in recent years. In fact, the two are closely intertwined.

The modern iteration of the culture wars started, arguably, with Gamergate: a vicious row between campaigners for more gender equality in video games and video game journalism and male misogynist gamers trying to maintain their slackening grip on an industry that had once been largely their preserve. Gamergate expanded outwards from anonymous message boards like 4chan via Reddit into the mainstream media ecosystem, spreading like bacteria. Online was where the right radicalised, leading to the conditions that allowed Donald Trump to win the White House.

Steve Bannon, the architect of Trump’s 2016 victory, will certainly know what Rule 34 is. It was during Gamergate that Bannon realised that the 4chan ecosystem could be weaponised for political purposes. In Devil’s Bargain, a book that looks at Bannon and the online subcultures that would eventually coalesce into the alt-right, journalist Joshua Green explains how Bannon stumbled across the digital subculture of 4chan and its ilk when he angered them by investing in a venture using low-wage workers to farm digital gold – worth real money to players – in the massive online multiplayer game World of Warcraft.

The backlash killed his venture, but Bannon was intrigued. “These rootless white males,” he tells Green, “had monster power.” Bannon, according to Green, realised he could “activate” that army: “they come in through Gamergate and then get turned onto politics and Trump.” That’s exactly what he did. The Democrats were caught off-guard by the sheer power of vitriol that Bannon’s army of trolls could bring to bear.

The meme wars may sound silly in the abstract, but places like 4chan are a powerful originator of political discourse, in part because of their esoteric structure; anonymous posting and the ephemeral nature of its threads allow and even encourage the unbounding of the (especially white, male) id, because when you can hide behind anonymity there is no need for shame, and thus no incentive to follow accepted social norms. 

But the ideas that bubble up here do not stay relegated to the internet’s sweaty underbelly. Conspiracy theories like Pizzagate – which held that Hillary Clinton aide John Podesta was operating a child sex ring out of a restaurant in suburban DC – and more recently QAnon have terrifyingly real consequences. A man with a gun stormed the restaurant to “investigate” Pizzagate in 2016; in June, another armed gunman used a homemade armoured car to blockade a bridge in Arizona, citing QAnon slogans. It is a miracle neither event had fatal consequences.

Slogans and concepts that began on places like 4chan’s white supremacist-leaning politics board /pol/ made their way to the mainstream, often via the clearing-house that Bannon’s Breitbart became. More, places like /pol/ became something akin to a rolling focus-group, allowing Bannon to fine-tune the campaign’s dog-whistle racism in real time.

The new Democratic intake makes the next Congress the youngest in history, and includes millennials such as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who is no stranger to the politics of virality. But the fact that the Democrats as a whole still seem so ignorant of internet culture is a disheartening sign. The army Bannon so successfully activated has not gone anywhere. How can they be beaten if the Democrats seem uninterested in understanding them?

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.